Lowell200: King Philip’s War

King Philip’s War

Just to the west of Chelmsford was the town of Groton which was incorporated in 1655 and included all of today’s Groton and Ayer and parts of Pepperell, Shirley, Dunstable, Littleton, and Tyngsborough. Chelmsford and Groton were still the northwest frontier of English settlement in New England in 1675 when events in Rhode Island and southern Massachusetts would shatter the relative peace of the region.

In the winter of 1674, a Native American allied with the English (a so-called “Christian Indian”) named John Sassamon was murdered near Middleborough which was southwest of Plymouth. Sassamon had warned the English of an impending uprising led by King Philip, the leader of the Wampanoags. For this disclosure, Sassamon had been killed, allegedly at the direction of Philip.

Amid rising tension, an English delegation from the Plymouth settlement met with Philip who stated his grievances which mostly involved encroachments by the English on Native American land, much of which involved deception and unfair dealing, often fueled by alcohol liberally supplied by the English. The negotiations failed, however, and within a week, Native American attacks on English settlements commenced and spread throughout New England. Many were killed on both sides.

While Chelmsford was not attacked directly, several incidents occurred which damaged relations between the English residents and the Native Americans of Wamesit. In the summer of 1675, a haystack was burned in Chelmsford and, although there were no witnesses, inhabitants of Wamesit were suspected. The Massachusetts General Court convened a hearing and judged William Hauckins of Wamesit to be guilty of setting the fire and ordered him to be sold into slavery. Two other Native Americans, Mannapaugh and his son Mannenesit, who were not from Wamesit were discovered in Chelmsford. They were judged to be “spies” and were also sold into slavery.

These incidents highlighted the lingering friction between the English and the so-called “Praying Towns” of Native Americans that had been embraced by John Eliot. These communities were “a hope and a problem” to the English who harbored doubts about the allegiances of their neighbors. The Native Americans of these communities found themselves trapped between two cultures, alienated from other Native Americans for their close relations with the English, but not truly accepted by the English. According to Michael J. Puglisi in his 1991 book, Puritans Besieged, King Philip’s War permitted “underlying malice and distrust” for the Native Americans by the English to manifest itself in “ugly expressions of racial animosity.”

Such was the case in Chelmsford when, in the aftermath of the haystack incident, a barn was burned. In retaliation, several Chelmsford residents raided Wamesit, killing a twelve-year-old boy and wounding four women and children. Two of the perpetrators were charged with murdering but boy, but the defendants were subsequently acquitted by a jury of their neighbors.

As a result of this incident, Wannalancit, the leader of the local Native Americans, abandoned Wamesit and led his people up the Merrimack River to the northern wilderness. The lingering animosity towards the Native Americans, and suspicion that Wannalancit’s disappearance had some hostile design, are evident in the Reverend William Hubbard’s 1677 account of King Philip’s War. Hubbard describes the killing of the Native American boy as a “rash, unadvised, cruel act of some of the English,” Hubbard added that the Native Americans of Wamesit had “suddenly turned our enemies, after the winter was over; having first withdrawn themselves from the place assigned them . . .” and proceeded to burn houses, steal cattle, and kill settlers in Billerica, Andover, and Chelmsford. While Chelmsford was not directly attacked, men from that town engaged in fierce fighting while assigned to the garrison of neighboring Groton when that town was abandoned by the English in March 1676 after three sustained Native American assaults on the community.